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Bridgestone turns to AI for production reforms

Technology the key to staying ahead

More than 500 sensors are mounted on Bridgestone's production line. (Outside view of molding machine).

TOKYO -- Bridgestone, the world's largest tire company, is launching reforms aimed at updating the entire company, from production technology through to governance.

The company says its ultimate objective is to be "far and away the best in the industry," and it has overwhelmed a number of competitors through huge acquisitions and expansion overseas, but it has reached something of a critical point.

Now, the concept of "far and away the best" has shifted from quantity to quality.

Sitting on the shores of Lake Biwa in central Japan, Bridgestone's flagship Hikone plant is the tire manufacturer's largest facility, turning out 53,000 passenger car tires a day. A virtually unmanned, environmentally sound production line was introduced last year, featuring Bridgestone's state-of-the-art "Examation" production equipment -- on which the company's entire future hinges.

Tires are made by wrapping rectangular strips of rubber sheet around a drum, joining the two ends together and molding the material into a circular shape. Examation takes care of the molding process, which is crucial to tire quality.

Precision is absolutely crucial. Rubber becomes soft when hot and hard when cold -- meaning even the minutest difference in the composition of the material can cause the strips to misalign.

If the joining procedure goes awry, the thickness differs at the seam, causing quality to deteriorate. In the past, it was up to highly skilled personnel to manually bring the seams together.

The Playz PX passenger car tire released in 2016 was developed to reduce the stress and fatigue that builds up subconsciously in a driver.

Examation removes the human element. More than 500 sensors are mounted on the line, which collect real-time data on equipment, production and product quality. If smaller sensors are included, there are more than 2,000, enabling the acquisition of seven times as much information as with conventional equipment.

Based on this data, artificial intelligence uses algorithms to calculate the optimum way to create the seam. The ends are then joined automatically.

Work previously done by hand has been reduced to one-third of what it was, and productivity doubled. Circularity, a measure indicating how close to a perfect circle a tire is, also improved 15%.

Through 2020, Bridgestone will invest 15 billion yen ($132 million) in the Hikone plant as it pursues production reforms centered on the new technology. "We want to make 30-40% of production volume with Examation," said executive officer Yukio Saegusa. The thinking is to introduce the system at plants in Hungary and Russia as well.

The company wants to develop Hikone into a "smart plant" that increases efficiency autonomously. Productivity hinges enormously on the maintenance of equipment. By this March, the company will begin releasing data such as the operating frequency of equipment to partner companies that handle maintenance. Having access to such data will enable them to understand when parts need to be replaced and help prevent equipment from breaking down.

At its plant in Kurume, southern Japan -- Bridgestone's birthplace -- materials are no longer touched by human hands. Electronic tags enable the parts inventory to be tracked. When technicians touch the production equipment's monitor screen, transport robots move around the premises to gather the materials.

Quantifying stress

IT-driven smart manufacturing is also being utilized for product development. The Playz PX passenger car tire released in 2016 was developed with the idea of reducing drivers' stress and fatigue.

Sensors embedded in mining-vehicle tires measure temperature and air pressure.

In partnership with Keio Universty, instruments were used to measure drivers' feelings of stress. Based on the results, the company developed a shape and way of forming tread that reduce the subconscious buildup of tension.

The drive to introduce cutting-edge technology is spreading throughout the industry, with rival Sumitomo Rubber Industries even using the supercomputer K and the J-PARC particle accelerator facility in tire development.

Bridgestone is pursuing development in which manufacturing information obtained by Examation is fed back into the design process, further enhancing product quality.

Sensors are used not only at production sites. For instance, they are embedded into the giant tires on mining tractors, where they measure temperature and air pressure and send the data to the mine operators. This helps maintain tires in good condition.

Bridgestone's strategy has been to expand overseas, particularly into the U.S. and Asia, grab markets ahead of the competition and increase market share. In 1988 it acquired major U.S. tire manufacturer Firestone. In 2015 it also attempted to acquire U.S. autoparts retailer Pep Boys, although this ultimately resulted in a setback.

It now has a presence in more than 150 countries. But simply being large in scale is no longer enough. It will also be difficult to retain dominance by merely emphasizing product quality.

According to Tire Business magazine, Bridgestone held top spot in the global market in 2015 with a share of 15%, followed by France's Michelin on 13.8% and American producer Goodyear with 9.2%. The company's share has, however, slipped 3.2 points compared with a decade earlier.

New Asian forces have emerged, such as South Korea's Hankook Tire. Asian companies are now even providing tires for German luxury cars. Differences in brand strength are steadily being eroded.

In 2015, chemical giant China National Chemical acquired Italian tire manufacturer Pirelli. Alliances are continuing to be forged overseas, as evidenced by the fact that on Jan. 18, Chinese tire producer Qingdao Doublestar was selected as the preferred bidder to acquire South Korea's number two tire maker, Kumho Tire.

In order to stand out and maintain competitiveness in the future, not only will the quality of Bridgestone's products themselves have to be of the highest standard, but increasing the level of technology in production and services will be vital. "We want to read the times in advance and increase customer value with IT," said Bridgestone CEO Masaaki Tsuya.

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